An exclusive chat with Steven Wilson
Although his work often defies genre classification, English singer/songwriter Steven Wilson has repeatedly been hailed as the king of modern progressive rock.
It’s not hard to hear why, either, considering his former role as the mastermind behind the iconic Porcupine Tree. Over the past decade, his stylistic and technical palette has expanded even further to yield some truly remarkable solo material, including his fifth album, 2017’s To the Bone.
I recently saw Wilson and his band (drummer Craig Blundell, keyboardist Adam Holzman, bassist Nick Beggs, and touring guitarist Alex Hutchings) on the Philly stop of their To the Bone tour, and I spoke with him beforehand about the album, the concert, his remastering of classic prog albums, his favorite films of 2018, his feelings on fans discussing his personal life, and much more.
Hey, Steven. Thanks for taking some time to speak with me again. It’s been a while.
I want to start with something unrelated to music, as I’ve noticed a lot of people online talking about your personal life. How do you feel about your fans discussing and speculating about things like that (such as your recent haircut and your “stepdaughter”)?
I mean, I think it’s a part of the contract that you have as a musician between you and your fanbase. They’re obviously going to be interested in your private life, especially if they engage with your lyrics and want to have some context for that regarding who you are as a person. I’ve always kept my private life kind of reasonably private but at the same time, I’m not trying to hide it, if you know what I mean.
The picture of the hairstyle that my stepdaughter gave me [posted to Instagram on 11/3/18] was just that, and I guess that that was the first time people heard of me having a stepdaughter. That’s because I don’t go out of my way to sort of talk about stuff like that. I’m not trying to hide it but—I guess I kind of like the idea that people would speculate. It is a bit mysterious. I think that you could give too much information sometimes about your private life so that there’s no element of mystery or enigma at all. Sometimes, that can get in the way of the music and the art. Like, I can’t take Ozzy Osbourne seriously ever again [laughs].
I can see why.
I know too much about him! I wish I only knew what I knew about him when I was a fifteen-year-old kid, which is that he was this kind of strange-looking guy who was in the inside of Black Sabbath album covers with this weird voice who sang these songs. Now I know too much about him and it’s difficult for me to engage with the music in the same way that I used to. So yeah, I think it’s kind of fun that people speculate about that. I don’t have a problem with it. I’m not going to make it easy for them, though.
I’m sure. I just think that sometimes that fans can treat their heroes like demigods. Not necessarily with you, but with other artists.
Listen, I’m not about to do a Hello! or OK! magazine photo shoot, but at the same time, I’m aware that there are probably a lot of people out there who have this idea about me as this hermit who lives in a recording studio and doesn’t do anything else except make music. I’ve got myself to blame for that, I’m sure [laughs], but that’s partly because I haven’t volunteered a lot of information about my private life. It’s not like I’m going out of my way to cover it up, either.
Oh, no. Of course not. Moving onto the tour, which you’ve been doing for a while now, I wonder what you do to keep it interesting and not feel like a job. Do you have to scale the show back depending on the venue?
The show has definitely had to be scaled back, not because of the venue but because of the finances. This particular tour, for instance, is what you’d call a secondary markets tour. Tonight’s an exception because Philly is a major market and I’ve done it before, but most of the shows on this run are like that. Places like Florida and Texas. I’m not selling as many tickets and I’m not getting as much of a fee, so I can’t put on the full show. It’s a little scaled down but only very slightly. Hopefully, not in ways that people will notice.
Yeah. As for how we keep it interesting, well, the show is a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to play with the guys in this band. We have a lot of fun on stage and we change things up. The solos are always improvised and the dynamic between the band and the audience is always different. The way you connect is different in every venue and there’s no way to really explain what it is that makes it different. The crowd also has a big part to play in terms of making each show unique and fresh. I’m not going to lie to you, though: there are certain nights where it does feel a bit like painting the same painting every night, which is a very uncreative act in some ways.
The simple answer is that a painter doesn’t paint the same thing for the rest of their lives, but as a musician, you kind of are expected to repaint it every night. There are ways to keep it fresh and we find them; a lot of it has to do with humor and fun and the dynamic with the audience and the improvisational elements of the show. We do change the set-up a bit and I do change the song list here and there.
Every time I’ve seen you, it’s been at the Keswick Theatre, and while it’s a great venue, it’s seated. I know you aren’t the biggest fan of that.
Yeah, that’s not my favorite way to do a concert. I hope tonight will be a lot more fun—not that those shows weren’t fun! It’s just always—I talk about the dynamic between the audience and the band and one of the major things that affects that is whether or not they’re seated or standing up. It’s not only what I see; it’s that they feel more engaged, particularly if you’re standing with a group of other people. It’s an infectious thing that doesn’t quite work the same way if everyone is seated. It feels more natural to me to play to a standing audience so I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t remember if I’ve ever played to standing audience in Philly before. Maybe something way back in the day. It’ll be interesting to see their true colors now that they’re standing up.
I remember seeing you and Aviv [Geffen] as Blackfield at the Theatre of Living Arts many years ago, so maybe then. Certainly, with Porcupine Tree, it’s always been seated.
I remember the TLA. It seems like I’ve been playing the Keswick for a long, long time now. It’s a nice venue but the seating thing—it’s nice to be doing something different now.
You mentioned changing the setlist a bit. What goes into that and are there any songs that you no longer want to play live?
It’s more a question of how the show needs to unfold. It’s been carefully designed and choreographed, not literally but you know what I mean. The journey has been very carefully planned so I’m not the kind of artist who can do the Grateful Dead thing of changing it completely each night. There are a lot of other elements to it, like the visuals. Everyone in the crew and sound team is aware of certain flows and structures that need to be there. It’s quite sequenced and not very easy to suddenly exchange a bunch of songs. What I tend to do is rotate certain ones within certain slots in the show. The first song in the second half, for example, is a rotating thing. Sometimes we do “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” and sometimes we do “Don’t Hate Me” and sometimes we do “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun.”
It makes it more interesting for us, too, and some people follow me from show to show so they get to see something different each time. I’d say that about 70% of the show is the same every night, and I haven’t gotten bored with it yet. The To the Bone stuff is so much fun to play. Songs like “Permanating,” “Song of I,” and “Denotation” are so fun to play. To be fair, some of the more ponderous and conceptual stuff from the last two records I don’t like playing as much. Sometimes we bring out them and it doesn’t feel quite as enjoyable to me as it did at the time. That’s because I’ve moved to a different space now. I’m still very proud of “Routine,” don’t get me wrong, but it feels quite heavy for the nature of the show, which is mostly upbeat. Putting that in there now would seem a bit like it’s pulling the show back. That’s no reflection on the song, which I’m very proud of, but you understand what I mean.
Completely. It would be like playing “Heartattack in a Layby,” which I still think is your greatest song.
There are times when it does work to bring it down, though, and “Heartattack” comes right between “Detonation” and “Vermillioncore” and it’s perfect there. It’s four minutes and it’s quick and stripped down and intimate. It’s a lovely moment of quiet just before the final push toward the end of the show. Again, that’s all to do with how you structure those mood shifts. You have to get it right; if it’s not, it doesn’t work.
It’s the same idea as the album as a specialized sequence instead of a random bunch of tracks.
Exactly. There is an art to it and some people still do it fantastically, but others just seem to throw it all together. I’ve always believed in the art of sequencing as it applies to a show as well.
This is the first time that you’re doing a VIP portion, too, so what led to you doing that and to including “a 60-minute live CD of a high-quality recording made during the 2013 Raven tour”?
My management came to me and said, “You can’t keep losing money when you go on tour.” That’s the simple, pragmatic reason. I’m spectacularly good at—I’m the only person in the business who apparently still makes reasonably good money from my record sales but loses money on the tour. The norm now is the opposite: the record is almost given away to make money on the road. I do the special editions and make pretty good money with that but then I go on tour and lose money. It’s been like that since the beginning of my solo career. This time, they said, “You can’t keep going away from eight weeks on tour and coming back and losing money,” so the VIP thing came up.
That makes sense.
It’s come up a few times in the past and I’d been reluctant to do it but this time I gave in. I didn’t really have a precedent for how it should be done because I’ve never been to any VIP things. I know that some people offer, like, sound check access or meet-and-greets or Q & As. I didn’t want to do that because I thought that the thing most people would be interested in was the music, so why not give away an exclusive CD and then play a few songs that they maybe thought they’d never get to hear or that are at least not part of the regular show? I hope that people think they are getting a good value for the money.
It definitely seems like it is.
If I was a fan, I’d want that from a VIP event. As for the CD itself, I’ve pretty much recorded every show I’ve ever done, and I was looking for a show from my archives that was something that perhaps hadn’t be documented before. If you think about it, the To the Bone tour is now documented in Home Invasion, and an earlier tour was documented in the previous Blu-ray [2012’s Get All You Deserve]. I was looking for a show in-between them, and this one came up because it’s a self-contained 60-minute performance. That’s it; we were doing a festival. Also, it has Chad Wakerman on drums, who’d never been any other live material of mine. He definitely gave the band a different sound and it was ready to go. I thought, this is an interesting show. It’s repertoire that people are not going to hear in the show itself and it’s a line-up that hasn’t been documented on a live release before.
Those are great reasons.
It’s not just more of the same; it’s something that will stand up in its own right as a significant live release.
Speaking of Home Invasion, how much of it was cut between the three nights at the Royal Albert Hall?
It’s all the third night. The advantage was that when we got to the third night, we were quite relaxed because we’d already played the first two nights and we understood the dynamic between us and the audience. Other things, like working out how the sound will be in a venue, can take a while to get used to. We came on stage that last night and we felt very relaxed. When you do a live filming, you’re self-conscious because there’s that red light starring at you. You think, oh, god! I’m being filmed. I better not make a mistake. We didn’t have that because it was the third night. Hopefully, that feeling of being unself-conscious comes across.
It’s got very little editing, too, aside from some quick fixes here and there. It’s very, very faithful to that night. I cut out a lot of the talking I did in-between because it’s not the sort of thing people want to see more than once. Apart from that, it’s a complete document of the show.
You mentioned “Permanating” a little while ago. Looking back, how do you feel about the reception of it in hindsight? It was fairly polarizing, and it still is, I’m sure.
The honest truth is that I don’t read any comments or feedback on social media. I haven’t for a long time now. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but be aware that that was going on. People like yourself have mentioned to me. Really, it’s great! Confronting expectations of your fanbase is one of the most important things you can do as an artist. That’s what David Bowie did during his whole career. You don’t make the same record twice in a row. Of course, you risk losing some fans and you almost always do. I have lost some throughout my career. I remember when In Absentia came out and had backlash about the metal thing from people who loved Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun. Those things are easily forgotten now, and people now say, “Oh, In Absentia is a classic Porcupine Tree album.” At the time, it got some truly negative responses from fans who didn’t like the metal aspect.
That’s surprising. In Absentia is incredible and so diverse.
Yeah. I’m used to it now, though, and I kind of relish it in a way. You cannot judge where an album fits into your canon until probably a year to two years after it comes out. I’m just beginning to feel now where To the Bone fits in for me and the fans. That’s something that I think—well, over time, what happens is that as an artist, people see your complete body of work. They can step back and see a body of work. When an album’s just been releases, there’s a tendency to just point out what’s different about it compared to the previous ones. Those things don’t really matter; in fact, they become the strengths of records. I knew that “Permanating” would upset some people.
I give you credit for openly facing that and staying true to what you wanted to put out.
I actually couldn’t wait for the video to be released because I knew that it would blow people’s minds with the Bollywood dancing. I’m sure that some people have never forgiven me for it [laughs] and have drifted away. Most people have come to appreciate it, though. The feeling I get live is that it’s something everyone loves.
It’s very uplifting.
And how can you not like a joyous pop song?
Also, people who were surprised by it seem to not really know your tastes or history. Like, you’re a big fan of ABBA and you’ve done pop before. There’s an irony in them complaining about it now, like you’ve suddenly just gone pop.
What was most shocking to people wasn’t that I’d written a pop song; it’s that I’d written something that had joy in it. People think of me as someone who only writes very melancholic songs. Here I am writing an unashamedly joyous tune and that jarred people more than the fact that it was a pop song. The sentiment of it. I understand how that can be a shock if you aren’t used to hearing it from an artist, but like you said, people can hopefully appreciate a great piece of pop music. I never want to lose fans on purpose, of course, but I understand that it is part of the deal of having a long career and evolving as an artist.
It’s fair to say that the two records before To the Bone were very much in the conceptual rock domain. Raven, maybe more than anything else I’ve done in my whole career, was an homage to 1970s progressive rock and conceptual rock music. A lot of new people came onboard then and then they decided that that’s what I do. If you decide that that’s what I do, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s always true; if you take an album in isolation and say, “Ah, that’s what he does,” you’re going to be disappointed when you hear the rest of them. Again, that’s a positive thing. I’m not trying to lose fans but I know that it’s part of the contract.
Some fans feel too much entitlement and ownership of the music, too.
Particularly now, with the internet. The internet is basically people complaining, not just in the music world but in general. They complain about the new Star Wars movie and products they bought from Amazon. Whatever it is. Politicians, even. I think you’re right in using the word “entitlement”; not only that, but now they have a forum to express that sense of entitlement. And they’re anonymous so no one’s going to punch them in the face. Unfortunately, that’s tapped into some of the worst aspects of the human psyche, but you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
Sadly, that’s true. It leads to things like group polarization and confirmation bias.
Yes, and expressing opinions as facts. That’s what the internet is, really. I do it, too. We all do. Rarely do any of us stop to say, “Well, this is just my opinion, but—”
We like to think we’re the experts on what we like, I guess. Shifting hears a bit, how difficult is it to compile the extras for all of the remixes you’re doing, and what are you working on next in that respect?
The simple answer is that this year, I’ve had no time to do anything. I haven’t really done much at all in terms of remixing. The Jethro Tull project—at the moment, I’m scheduled to do one more, which is Stormwatch, and then I’ll probably call it a day. That’s not to say that I don’t like the records that come after but for one thing, I’m getting very busy myself and I have to give priority to myself. Secondly, the records that I feel the most affinity for are the ones I’ve done. I know that some people feel that The Broadsword and the Beast is the Jethro Tull album but for me, it’s not, so someone else should do that one. I’ve had Stormwatch on my laptop for the last six months and I haven’t gotten very far with it. I will get to it eventually.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of no-man. Any plans to do anything to commemorate that with Tim Bowness?
We’ve been working on an album for about five years [laughs]. Actually, even longer than that. We had a session earlier in the summer to try to get closer to finishing it. It’s going to happen—I can tell you that—but I’m just not sure when.
Craig [Blundell, drums] recently posted that he’s touring with Steven Hackett during much of 2019. Will that affect your work together?
No, the reason that the guys are taking on other work next year is because I told them that from March onward, I have no need for them. They’re all working musicians and they go off and hustle new gigs. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position where I can’t pay retainers to people, especially when I’m off the road. I’m going to be off the road now for probably eighteen months or so, working on a new record and new projects. The last show we do is in the first week of March and then I need time off, too. It’s been pretty heavy going lately.
Now that we’re at the end of the year, what entertainment stuck out to you?
My personal movie this year wasn’t even made this year, but I only saw it this year. It’s called Personal Shopper. It has Kristen Stewart and it’s genius. It’s a beautiful movie about loss and it’s a bit of a ghost story and a bit of a sci-fi thing. It’s also an indictment of the fashion industry and the “Me! Me! Me!” generation with social media. It’s brilliant! It’s almost beyond genre-classification. It’s haunting and clever and sad and anyway [laughs]. The best one I saw this year that was made this year is flawed but it’s really special. It’s called Annihilation.
That was good. I’m Facebook friends with the author of the book, Jeff.
Oh, was it not Alex Garland? I assumed that he wrote it since he started out as a writer. That’s interesting. Listen, it had some issues, but it’s a movie that’s like nothing else I’ve seen. The final scene is extraordinary. It reminded me of the ending of Under the Skin a little bit.
I’ve not seen that one yet.
That’s my favorite movie of the last ten years. You have to see that. It’s a masterpiece.
Okay, I’ll check it out on your recommendation. Are you looking forward to the new Lars von Trier movie, The House that Jack Built?
I don’t know anything about it. I’ve liked some of his movies more than the others. I like the idea of him more than the reality, you know? I love the fact that someone like that exists. Also, the French equivalent. What’s his name? Gaspar Noé.
Oh, like Irréversible. That’s a great movie.
I don’t ever want to see it again but it’s exceptional. The one he made before that, with the wife beater?
I Stand Alone.
I mean, wow! It’s brutal but it’s great. Enter the Void, too. I think I prefer him to von Trier. What’s the new one about?
It’s about Matt Dillion as a serial killer and—
It sounds right up my street, then [laughs].
It’s supposed to be very hard to watch but also philosophical. A lot of pontification about art and history, etc. I generally like provocateurs like that.
That’s the word, isn’t it? Those kinds of movies that either get one star or five stars on forums.
How about Yorgos Lanthimos?
Did you see The Killing of a Sacred Deer? He’s amazing. His movies are a bit sweeter than von Trier and Noé’s. Their movies are quite nasty in a fascinating way. There’s a heavy cynicism that runs through them. Lanthimos’ movies are more sympathetic. The Lobster is quite funny and Sacred Deer is compelling. You kind of like the characters more in his films, too. You don’t really like the characters in the other two filmmakers’ works.
That’s a definite contrast between them. You mentioned working on new music. How much can you reveal about that? Also, any dream collaborations you’ve not yet done?
To be honest, I think I’m too old to be thinking about, you know, the working-with-my-heroes kind of thing. I just want to work with people who are going to bring the best out of me now. I’m working with a producer named David Kosten on my next record. I’m going to co-produce it. I co-produced for the first time on my last album, with Paul Stacey, and really enjoyed that experience. It took me away from my clichés. David is fantastic; he did the first two Bats for Lashes albums.
I just discovered her a couple months ago! The song “Moon and Moon.”
Oh, okay. He also did the first two LPs by a group called Everything Everything. I don’t know if they’ve made it over to the States. He’s doing the new Keane record now and then he’s going to do mine. He’s very creative and he’s great with electronics. I’m not about to make an electronic record; I’m still going to be within my tradition as a rock musician, but if I could categorize what I want to do with it, it would be to say this: if To the Bone was a little bit of an homage to the ‘80s and Raven and Hand. Cannot. Erase. were more toward the conceptual rock albums of the ‘70s, I want the next one to be completely of the now. I don’t know exactly how that’ll pan out but I’m trying to be a little bit more divorced from my nostalgia.
That’s a good approach.
It’s very easy to get sucked into that. There’s so much great music in the past. But then what’s the point? You can’t better it. In a way, I feel like I almost have to cut myself off from that this time and say, “I’m going to make a record that sounds completely of the now using my musical personality and all that’s unique about it.” Working with David will keep me focused on that. I’ve played the first few tracks we’ve done so far for some people and they seem genuinely blown away. That’s a good sign. It’s still a way off, though. Realistically, it’ll be out in early 2020.
Fantastic. I can’t wait to hear it, Steven. Thanks so much for speaking with me. I can’t wait to see you guys play later tonight, too.
Thank you, Jordan. It’s always a pleasure.